Stefan Collini

Stefan Collini’s edition of George Orwell’s Selected Essays was published last year.

It​ can be hard, from this distance, to see what all the fuss was about. In his day (a day that, unfortunately for him, ended a decade or so before his death in 1946, a month short of his 80th birthday), H.G. Wells was one of the world’s leading literary and intellectual celebrities. Hailed as ‘a man of genius’ on the appearance of his breakthrough book, The Time Machine...

We are asked to believe in a world in which individual agents are in full possession of undivided selves, unshaped by social determinants, and able to realise outcomes simply by willing them strongly enough. It is assumed that there is an uncomplicated thing called ‘talent’ or ‘ability’, and that some people have more of it than others. It is also assumed – pretty much as a fact of nature, it seems – that some people will make more ‘effort’ and work ‘harder’ than others. Meritocracy proposes to rearrange the world (shouldn’t take long) so that, for those who combine ability and effort, every day is Christmas Day. At the same time, in much recent social science, unmasking the sham of ‘equality of opportunity’ has become a familiar five-finger exercise. Study after study suggests that where people get to in life is largely determined by where they start. But the very fact that it is so easy to assemble the evidence for this truth gives the literature on the topic a slightly tired, stale character.

Book Reviewing: On the ‘TLS’

Stefan Collini, 5 November 2020

In July​ 1921, Alfred Harmsworth – by then ennobled as Viscount Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, the Times, and numerous other publications – wrote in irritable mood to the managing director of the Times about the ‘Lit Supp’, as the Times Literary Supplement was known. He grumbled that its circulation ‘has decreased a great deal’, concluding that...

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini, 13 August 2020

Ihadn’tbeen expecting to bump into Frank in one of the remoter stacks of the Cambridge University Library. This is where they keep the back numbers of old scholarly periodicals, a morgue only likely to be violated by those, like me, who now spend their days picking over the cairns left by academic labourers seventy years ago. And Frank Kermode had been dead for almost ten years...

‘How​ do you write like the Economist?’ a new member of staff asked as he began to compose his first leading article for the paper some years ago. ‘Pretend you are God,’ a senior colleague replied. Given that the deity tends not to comment directly on current affairs these days, the anxious recruit may have struggled to put this advice into practice. Browsing leaders from the previous couple of decades might have yielded a more concrete sense of what was wanted. It would appear that omniscience is one attribute of the God-like perspective; absence of self-doubt is another. Then there is a lapidary style leavened by the obiter dicta of powerful individuals, plus a tendency to reiterate a few stern commandments, which one might imagine as: ‘Thou shalt not inhibit economic growth.’ ‘Thou shalt not be parochial.’ ‘Thou shalt not worship false gods – and don’t pretend thou knowest not the ones we mean.’

The Enlightened Vote: Ernest Renan

Stefan Collini, 19 December 2019

‘Whatever may be the judgment of time on the intrinsic value of Renan’s contribution to the sum of knowledge, he can never lose his place among the few great names in the history of letters.’ This assessment from the 1901 edition of Chambers’s Encyclopedia, equally striking today for its confidence and its remoteness, summarises the conventional wisdom at the...

Unreasoning Vigour: Ian Watt

Stefan Collini, 9 May 2019

‘My​ military career was on the comic side.’ Self-protective irony was Ian Watt’s chosen register when describing his wartime experience some twenty years later. That experience began when the 24-year-old Lieutenant Watt was posted, along with the rest of the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, to the Far East in the winter of 1941. After a 20,000-mile journey by sea,...

Kept Alive for Thirty Days: Metrics

Stefan Collini, 8 November 2018

How much​ does your spouse or partner love you? Is it more or less than other people love their partners? To find out, we would need to measure the available evidence. Suppose that having identified the relevant population, we count how many times a week partners are brought tea in bed, how many times they are cuddled, how many times they are told ‘I love you,’ and so on. In...

Diary: The Marketisation Doctrine

Stefan Collini, 10 May 2018

‘But why​ have they done this?’ Standing in the foyer of the National Theatre in Prague, having just taken part in a debate on ‘The Political Role of Universities?’, I had fallen into conversation with a former rector of Charles University, who was asking me to explain the dramatic and – as we both thought – damaging changes imposed on British...

A Lot to Be Said: Literary Criticism

Stefan Collini, 2 November 2017

Scanning​ recent academic literary studies for examples of what he calls ‘a genuinely critical impulse’, Joseph North picks out D.A. Miller’s subtle analysis of Jane Austen’s prose. ‘The critical voice speaking here is quite remarkable for the finesse with which it mimics the rhetorical effect it is describing,’ North writes, referring to a passage in...

Where​ would you have found, in 1940, ‘the most elite university in the world in terms of the pool of scholars it contained’? The answer, according to the editors’ introduction to Ark of Civilisation: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University 1930-45, isn’t any of the great institutions that may come to mind, but Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. As the result of a...

Faced​ with the threatening possibility of hope, Beckett liked to get his retaliation in first. ‘Downhill begins this year,’ he announced with grim satisfaction in 1966. Even this may have been a slip, allowing the possibility of there having been an ‘up’ from which to come down. Usually his defences were in place in advance: ‘All is I suppose as well as can be...

How to Be Ourselves: Mark Greif

Stefan Collini, 20 October 2016

When​ the American journal n+1 was launched in 2004, an editorial in the first number lamented the state of contemporary culture. We are living, it said, at ‘a time when serious writing about culture has become the exclusive province of bullies, reactionaries and Englishmen’. The prominence of a number of male English writers in the leading US organs of opinion had been remarked...

Who are the spongers now?

Stefan Collini, 21 January 2016

The central proposal of the Green Paper is to set up a Teaching Excellence Framework as a parallel to the existing Research Excellence Framework, which periodically assesses and scores the quality of the research done in all university departments. On the basis of these scores, league tables are constructed, ranking institutions’ output both overall and in individual disciplines, and central funding for research is distributed accordingly. The TEF will do something similar for teaching.

Descriptions​ of Richard Titmuss often drew on the language of otherworldliness. He was ‘the high priest of the welfare state’ according to an assessment quoted in the ODNB. His entry there considers, though judiciously rejects, his frequent characterisation as a ‘saint’; understandably, it doesn’t cite his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott’s description of...

Uncle Wiz: Auden

Stefan Collini, 16 July 2015

Auden​ loved aphorisms, extracts, notes, lists. It was not just the shortness of short forms that he approved of: he liked their refusal of system even more, their acknowledgment that fragmentariness can only ever be papered over, never wholly subsumed. The nearest he came to publishing an autobiography, which was not very near at all, was A Certain World (1970), a commonplace book made up...

Whisky out of Teacups: David Lodge

Stefan Collini, 19 February 2015

In​ the preface to The Ambassadors written for the New York Edition of 1909, Henry James insisted that although the conception of the novel required that the unfolding action be in some sense seen through Strether’s eyes, there had been no question of using first-person narration. That technique, he insisted, would have been too self-indulgent: his treatment of Strether had ‘to...

Three hopes​ or dreams have played important parts in modern progressive politics in Britain in the decades after 1945. The first is the dream of the social-democratic equivalent of the philosopher-king. This expresses the hope that even in contemporary mass democracies a figure will emerge who can work the political machine and at the same time embody intellect, sensibility and liberal...

Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record, and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record, nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first.

Deeper Shallows: C.S. Lewis

Stefan Collini, 20 June 2013

It is difficult to write about C.S. Lewis without giving offence. Most authors have their admirers, and literary sectarianism is hardly rare, but Lewis is unusual in being at the heart of more than one cult, having excelled in genres where attachments are warmest and the cool touch of analysis can be most resented, such as popular religious writing and children’s literature. That he was...

Buffed-Up Scholar: Eliot and the Dons

Stefan Collini, 30 August 2012

Writing in his best haughty-provocative manner, T.S. Eliot described Coleridge as ‘one of those unhappy persons … of whom one might say that if they had not been poets, they might have made something of their lives, might even have had a career’. Although the syntax allows a little ambiguity about whether the unhappiness is independent of, or consequent on, being a poet,...

Since perhaps the 1970s, certainly the 1980s, official discourse has become increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom, which is derived not strictly from economic theory proper, but rather from the language of management schools, business consultants and financial journalism.

What’s not to like? Ernest Gellner

Stefan Collini, 2 June 2011

’s That’s Offensive!: Criticism, Identity, Respect came out earlier this year.

Much of the initial response to the Browne Report seems to have missed the point. Its proposals have been discussed almost entirely in terms of ‘a rise in fees’. Analysis has largely concentrated on the amount graduates might pay and on which social groups may gain or lose by comparison with the present system. In other words, the discussion has focused narrowly on the potential financial implications for the individual student, and here it should be recognised that some of the details of Browne’s proposed system of graduate contributions to the cost of fees are, if his premises are granted, an improvement on the present patchwork arrangements. But the report proposes a far, far more fundamental change to the way universities are financed than is suggested by this concentration on income thresholds and repayment rates. Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good.

Memories of Frank Kermode

Stefan Collini, Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood and Wynne Godley, 23 September 2010

Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this point. On the appointed day the weather was kind, and...

On the Lower Slopes: Greene’s Luck

Stefan Collini, 5 August 2010

Graham Greene was more than half in love with easeful failure. He chose to end A Sort of Life, the sly memoir of his early years that stood in for an autobiography, with ‘the years of failure which followed the acceptance of my first novel’, adding the characteristic gloss that ‘failure too is a kind of death’ and so may conclude the story of a life as appropriately as...

Blahspeak: Aspiration etc…

Stefan Collini, 8 April 2010

The Milburn report is written for the most part in Blairspeak – or, since this idiom is now general not individual, ‘blahspeak’. In blahspeak, social mobility is equated with realising ‘pent-up aspiration’. One of the absurdities here is that the second phrase refers to subjective experience, the first to an objective pattern. People may realise pent-up aspiration in all kinds of ways without altering their position in the social structure in the slightest. This slide into the subjective once again reveals the individualist assumptions behind the Thatch-Lab pact.

From the Motorcoach: J.B. Priestley

Stefan Collini, 19 November 2009

Earlier this year, I visited the Birmingham suburb of Bournville for the first time. Planned and developed by the Cadburys in the 1890s, the estate is explicitly modelled on an ideal of the English village, with the mostly semi-detached houses playing a set of variations on the theme of the cottage. Consulting Pevsner as I walked around, I was surprised to find that, normally rather sniffy...

Self-Positioning: the Movement

Stefan Collini, 25 June 2009

Craig Raine recalls that when the former chairman of Faber, Charles Monteith, encountered the suggestion that one of Philip Larkin’s poems was indebted to Théophile Gautier, he was ‘incredulous’. To Monteith, the idea that Larkin might have been influenced by a foreign poet was ‘ludicrous’. ‘He had fallen,’ Raine comments, ‘for the...

Delighted to See Himself: Maurice Bowra

Stefan Collini, 12 February 2009

What is the best case that can be made for Maurice Bowra? In his day, and it was a long day, he was the most celebrated don in Oxford, and therefore in England. Born in 1898, he became a fellow of Wadham in 1922; he was elected its warden in 1938, holding that office, astonishingly, until 1970; he died a year later. He wrote or edited some thirty books, mostly semi-scholarly, semi-popular expositions...

Upwards and Onwards: On Raymond Williams

Stefan Collini, 31 July 2008

When Raymond Williams died suddenly, aged 66, in January 1988, estimations of him were sharply divided. There were those who regarded him as a deservedly influential literary and cultural critic, a major socialist theorist and an exemplary instance of the union of intellectual seriousness and political purpose. There were others who thought he had for too long enjoyed an inflated reputation, that he was a muddy thinker and verbose writer who had been swept to a form of cultural celebrity by the vogue for working-class sentimentalism in the 1960s and lefter-than-thou self-righteousness in the 1970s.

Hierophants: C. Day-Lewis

Stefan Collini, 6 September 2007

What are poets good for? Are all attempts to speak of ‘the function of poetry’, with that reductive definite article, doomed to pompous failure? In response to these questions, the sentence which precedes Shelley’s over-quoted dictum that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ is rarely cited, and one can see why. ‘Poets,’ he writes,...

Do you think he didn’t know? Kingsley Amis

Stefan Collini, 14 December 2006

Giving offence has become an unfashionable sport, but Kingsley Amis belongs in its hall of fame, one of the all-time greats. When Roger Micheldene, the central character in his 1963 novel, One Fat Englishman, is warned that he’s about to say something he’ll be sorry for, he replies, ‘those are the only things I really enjoy saying’ – and there isn’t much...

In the early 20th century, literary pilgrims to Stratford-upon-Avon already knew a lot about the great writer they had come to honour. The author’s house in Church St has rather come down in the world since then and is now an outpost of Birmingham University, but in its heyday it was home to a writer with some claims to be the most widely read, in English and in translation, across the...

Liquored-Up: Edmund Wilson

Stefan Collini, 17 November 2005

Edmund Wilson has become an object of fantasy. A lot of desire is currently invested in him as the representative of a cherished role: the critic-as-generalist, the man of letters as cultural critic, or what in the last decade or more it has become common in the United States to call the ‘public intellectual’. Fantasies are, by definition, about the not-present, and all of these...

Whigissimo: Herbert Butterfield

Stefan Collini, 21 July 2005

Do you speak Whiggish? The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary does not, it appears – at least not fluently. The original OED, compiled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contained full entries for ‘Whig’ and its adjectival derivatives, denoting that group or tradition which had been one of the two main contending forces in British political life...

Our Island Story: The New DNB

Stefan Collini, 20 January 2005

“Broadly speaking, there are seven main sociological layers of subjects. First, there’s the burial in the Abbey layer: monarchs, statesmen, prelates. Next, the land and glory crowd: owning a lot of acres and killing a lot of foreigners have ever been among the most reliable passports to distinction in British life. Then there’s the Athenaeum Club: judges, writers, civil servants, scientists, professors. Next comes the Institute of Directors: the controllers of capital and the boss class generally. After that, the Hello! gang: the celebrated, the notorious, the newly rich, the eternally shameless. Then we have the historical oddities: the very old, the very weird and the very unlikely.”

Life at the Pastry Board: V.S. Pritchett

Stefan Collini, 4 November 2004

It was all done with a pastry board and a bulldog clip. Sheets of paper were clipped to the board, the board rested on the arms of his chair and the fountain-pen began to cover the pages with a scrawl that barely hinted at intimations of legibility. Every day was much the same, weekday or weekend: a long morning at the board, lunch, a nap, errands, tea and then back to the board; a drink or...

When Stephen Spender’s son Matthew was ten years old, he caught his hand in a car door. ‘The event,’ John Sutherland writes, ‘recalled other tragedies in the boy’s little life; the running over, for example, of his dog Bobby – a "rather lugubrious looking spaniel” and a present from his godmother, Edith Sitwell. Six-year-old Matthew had been...


Stefan Collini, 6 November 2003

“We have now entered the world of hotel and restaurant guides: some departments will have signs next to the entrance saying ‘HEFCE-commended’, while prospective students will decide whether they will be content with ‘plain regional teaching’ (one mortarboard), or would prefer ‘high-quality teaching in its category’ (two mortarboards), or perhaps even stretch to ‘exceptional teaching of international quality’ (three mortarboards). Suicides among heads of department who are stripped of one of the coveted mortarboards cannot be ruled out.”

His preferred genre is the polemic; his favoured tone mixes forensic argument with high-octane contempt. And no one can accuse him of only picking on boys his own size: he is happy to take the ring against tubby, bespectacled former diplomats and little, shrivelled old ladies as well as (special contempt here) relatively fit joggers.

The Cookson Story: The British Working Class

Stefan Collini, 13 December 2001

Reading may not make the world go round but it can make it go away, for a while. If one’s world is dirty, poor, oppressive and unfair, then that may be no small service. Books furnish the mind in a form that the bailiffs cannot repossess. If we could recover the reading practices of past generations, we would be in touch with an experience that was at once intimate and formative, on a...

Hegel in Green Wellies: England

Stefan Collini, 8 March 2001

Condition of England writing is the product of a perceived acceleration in the pace of social change. We owe the term to Carlyle, writing in the 1830s, when the ‘Condition of England Question’ largely turned on the nature of the link between a new form of economic activity (then just coming to be termed ‘industrialism’) which promised undreamed of material abundance,...

An Abiding Sense of the Demonic: Arnold

Stefan Collini, 20 January 2000

I shall put together either for a pamphlet or for Fraser, a sort of résumé of the present question, as the result of what I have thought, read, and observed here, about it. I am very well and only wish I was not so lazy, but hope and believe one is less so from 40 to 50, if one lives, than at any other time of life.

The Tell-Tale Trolley

Stefan Collini, 8 September 1994

Walking along the main street of Famham one afternoon, Richard Hoggart was accosted by a drunk. He didn’t ask for money or spit ill-focused abuse. ‘I know who you are.’ he slurred, ‘and I’ve got one question for you. Who’s the better writer, you or Raymond Williams?’

Here’s to the high-minded

Stefan Collini, 7 April 1994

In the Seventies and Eighties, right-wing think-tanks and their academic lapdogs put about the idea that the ills of contemporary Britain were fundamentally due to its genteel aversion to industrialism and its sentimental attachment to collectivism. The selective accounts of the past that were intended to support this diagnosis traced the aetiology of these ailments back to the late 19th century, and particularly to the influence on social and economic policy of that cultivated élite of the well-connected and well-intentioned who laid the foundations of the welfare state. Central to the would-be ‘cultural revolution’ of the Thatcher years was an aggressive populism which attempted to dislodge the descendants of this élite and the values they represented from their long-standing centrality in British culture. Characteristically feeble echoes of this assault were evident in John Major’s recent sneering at ‘progressive theorists’, but some years ago the real emotional dynamic was laid bare, indecently bare, by (as usual) Norman Tebbit, who extolled ‘the man in the pub’ against the upper-class ‘cocktail set’ on the grounds that the former is ‘far more attached to our traditional values’ than are ‘his social superiors, so called, and intellectual betters’.

Dream of the Seventh Dominion

Stefan Collini, 4 December 1980

At All Souls in 1932, Lewis Namier provoked Isaiah Berlin by scornfully dismissing the history of ideas – dismissing it in German, though the rest of the conversation (or rather harangue) was conducted in English – as ‘what one Jew cribs from another’. But for some unpredictable migrations and a few world-historical hiccups in the previous decades, this exchange might have been taking place – quite possibly in French – in, say, Warsaw or St Petersburg. One could no doubt imagine other circumstances which would have resulted in few English readers now being interested in the opinions of Ludwik Bernsztajn Niemirowski (he had, in fact, already changed this name twice by the time he became a British subject in 1913). Yet the distinctive flavour of the scene depends upon the Englishness of its setting, in an intellectual as well as a physical sense.


Snakes and Ladders

1 April 2021

Stefan Collini writes: I agree with Lawrence Denholm’s account of the legal position of academies, but the phrase which he, quite understandably, challenges on these grounds was an (overly condensed) attempt to capture the reality of their activities. As with many of the colleges and universities that have sprung up in recent years, the category of ‘not for profit’ proves, on closer...

What Matters

27 January 2020

There is a bizarre surplus of outrage in Alexander Zevin’s letter (Letters, 20 February). Even leaving aside (as I shall) his unnecessary and misleading ad hominem remarks, there are too many exaggerations and misrepresentations in it. Surely the nub of the matter is this: Zevin’s book Liberalism at Large is described as ‘a critical biography’ of the Economist since 1843;...

Sold Out

23 October 2013

Anne Summers complains that, in discussing Everything for Sale?, I gave details of the career of Roger Brown but not of Helen Carasso, ‘with whom he wrote the book’ (Letters, 21 November). Her reproach is misplaced. I was merely following the indications in the book itself, where the acknowledgments, signed by Roger Brown alone, state that ‘as author I take full and final responsibility...

Sorts of Success

5 August 2010

Mark Etherton complains that although I referred to Graham Greene’s stint as literary editor of the short-lived magazine Night and Day, I failed to mention that he was the cause of the magazine’s failure (Letters, 19 August). The reason I didn’t is that it does not seem to be true. In Shades of Greene, Jeremy Lewis writes: ‘It is generally assumed that Night and Day was closed...
I am very willing to believe that Paul Anderson has new and reliable evidence about the circulation of Tribune in the mid-1940s, in which case my calculation about the combined circulation of the three periodicals in which much of Orwell’s best writing appeared may have to be revised (Letters, 10 April). But, as Anderson acknowledges, the Audit Bureau of Circulations seems not to have certified...

What MPs Read

13 December 2001

Brian Towers (Letters, 21 February) notes that there is no mention of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in my review of Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and asks whether this was ‘an omission on the part of the reviewer, or the author, or both’. The hint of reproach in ‘omission’ may not be quite fair to either...

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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George Orwell is commonly invoked as the ideal role model for the intellectual: feisty, independent, outspoken and contrarian, active in the public sphere, and famous. So it’s a surprise to...

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Athenian View

Michael Brock, 12 March 1992

In seven of the nine chapters in this fine book Dr Collini depicts the denizens of the Athenaeum in its great days. T.H. Huxley, having left his umbrella at Matthew Arnold’s, asks his...

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Burrinchini’s Spectre

Peter Clarke, 19 January 1984

Time was when Clio had a seamless garment: but that was before the division of labour set in. Prefixless history is now condescendingly thought of as ‘straight’ history and her...

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